Following is a very brief explanation of life at Gaden Shartse as I experienced it in December.

Where I stayed, the monks, young and old, woke at 5:00am (those who had kitchen duty were up at 4:00am) and began reciting prayers while they washed and prepared for the day. The younger monks would clean the grounds of their house before setting off to retrieve breakfast from the monastery kitchen which consists of Tibetan butter tea and a large, pancake style loaf of bread.

Following breakfast the majority of the monastery population began their classes, while the house managers and those assigned to service in the monastery began their work.

The youngest monks in the monastery are around 7 years old and are generally learning Tibetan grammar and writing as well as beginning the ongoing task of memorizing prayers and texts. As they get older they may acquire more responsibilities and their studies move forward into the preliminary levels of debate, science, philosophy and general education.

The older monks, generally in their early twenties to mid thirties, 'c are immersed in intense study and memorization. Every night at 9:00pm (with the exception of Monday which is everyone's day off) these older monks slip off with rosary and cushion in hand to hone their skills in the fine art of debate, which takes place in the wooded courtyard at the old temple (now the elementary school.)

Textbooks needed for Gaden Shartse's curriculum are supplied to each student by the monastery, although if they wish to study other texts they must either check them out at the library or purchase them on their own. The texts range from forty to a few hundred rupees. (100 rupees are roughly equivalent to 2 U.S. dollars.)

As you may know, most of the monks have set their goal on achieving the wisdom and title of a Geshe, something similar to a doctorate degree, which can take more than 20 years of intense study to complete. There are three levels to the Geshe degree of which Lharampa is the highest. The final phase in obtaining the Lharampa degree is an oral exam during the winter debates. This is the annual gathering of the three great monasteries in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition over which His Holiness the Dalai Lama generally presides.

The number of Geshe Lharmapas existing today are few, and those who have taken their education beyond the intellectual level are even more rare.

Those monks who have completed their studies, earning any of the three levels of a Geshe degree are generally requested to teach. Others, unable to complete their studies for various reasons, move into administration or other services to the monastery depending on their individual skills. These include drivers, tailors, ritual performers and many more.

Several of the senior monks are still teaching and participating in prayer services, while some have even continued their administrative duties. One elder monk in particular continues to go to work every day, walking up three flights of stairs with a very bad knee. He, like many other monks, has been serving the monastery office as a volunteer for several years more than the required term.

Lunch and dinner at the monastery both consist of rice and some form of lentil or potato dish as well as bread similar to that served for breakfast. Gaden Shartse recently removed the occasional meat from its menu and is now completely vegetarian with the exception of private meals served for guests. Monks young and old generally do not go to bed until 11:00pm, finishing the evening with further study or memorization.

Although the monks have such a tight schedule, education can sometimes be slow due to the mandatory attendance of all monks to special prayer sessions. Whether it is for a holiday or for those who are sick or dying, the monks will begin extensive prayer sessions after breakfast that continue throughout the morning and often resume after a noon-time break.

What I was most impressed with is the sense of unity that exists in each of the houses. Although some houses are not as large or well off as others, the monks take care of each other like a family. The younger monks have no shortage of guidance from those who have once been at their level, the older monks often pausing on their way through the house to listen to the recitation of the younger monks and gently, sometimes teasingly {and sometimes roughly} pointing out where they missed a word or pronunciation.

The young monks where I stayed had their ears examined and cleaned on a daily basis having come from a remote Himalayan village where ear infections, and loss of hearing are prevalent. Often times monks are taken to the nearest city, more than an hours drive, for checkups or other medical needs which are paid for by the monastery.

One thing I noticed that was lacking most everywhere is dental care... some of the monks have only half of their teeth due to a childhood sweet tooth or old age. Many of the senior monks are also in a great deal of pain with old injuries and aging bones. (If you or anyone you know wishes to send pain medicine, or more specifically 1000mg Glucosamine Sulfate I will be happily forward it on to those who need it.)

At the beginning of each year, known as Losar, each monk is given a new pair of shoes, or new robes if they are needed and an offering of money from the monastery. Throughout the year all monks will receive small offerings, either from those monks who have completed a certain term of service to the monastery, sponsors who make offerings during teachings or {for those monks who have sponsors abroad} through your contributions. 

In a letter sent out last year I mentioned that a percentage of each sponsorship is given to the monk you are sponsoring - the remaining amount, as I learned during my visit, is deposited into a reserve account, which is separate from all other monastery accounts, and is to be used if the monastery experiences financial difficulty and is unable to support the monks.

There are now more that one thousand, five hundred monks residing at Gaden Shartse. The population is made up mostly of Tibetan refugees, both from India and Tibet, and from Tibetan border regions such as Sikkim, Spiti, Ladakh, Nepal and Bhutan. There are also students from Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam and handful of western countries. Many of the boys enter monastic life by choice, but poorer ethnic families and refugees will admit their children knowing that they will receive a better life and education in the monastery.

I would like to thank you again for your kindness, and all those who have helped Gaden Shartse and the other monastic institutions to survive and grow.

Lara (from Thubten Dhargye Ling - 3500 E. 4th St, Long Beach, CA 90814, USA. Tel: 562-621-9865)